Graduate Students Across The Country Protest GOP Tax Plan

Nov 30, 2017
Originally published on November 30, 2017 12:53 pm
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Graduate students at dozens of university campuses walked out of class yesterday. They were protesting a Republican tax plan - specifically a House version - that would lead to a huge tax increase for grad students. NPR's Chris Arnold has more.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Republicans are giving more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to U.S. corporations. And to help pay for that, they're raising taxes on some middle-income Americans. And in the House version, they're really raising taxes on grad students.

KELLY BRIGNACK: It is crazy. It is ridiculous. It would definitely double, even triple my taxes.

ARNOLD: Kelly Brignack is working on a Ph.D. in history at Harvard. Economics students at MIT we talked to also crunched the numbers and say the same thing - their taxes would double or triple under the House version of the tax plan. Brignack says she's from Louisiana. Her family doesn't have much money. And if this big Republican tax hike on students had been in place when she was thinking about grad school...

BRIGNACK: I would not be able to afford to get a Ph.D. anywhere. You know, most of my family hasn't gone to college. My dad hasn't gone to college because it's been frankly unaffordable for a really long time. So I'm one of the first people in my family to graduate from college, to have a master's degree and to get a Ph.D.

ARNOLD: OK. Here's how this tax hike would work. House Republicans want to tax what are called tuition waivers. A lot of grad students do work. They help professors with their research, they teach. In exchange, they get free tuition and a small stipend. But the House bill would make them count the value of that tuition as taxable income. And tuition can cost $45,000 to $50,000.

That's money that they never actually see, but a student like Brignack, who's making a $34,000 stipend, she would be taxed as if she was making $80,000. And that means a big tax increase. If it goes through, even though she's several years into her Ph.D., Brignack's not so sure she could stomach going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt to finish.

BRIGNACK: To take out student loans to pay taxes on money - on thousands of dollars that I never see in my bank account would just be totally unreasonable, and it just wouldn't be possible for me. I would probably have to drop out of school.

ARNOLD: So grad students are freaking out right now. They don't understand why Republicans want to make it so much harder and more expensive to get an advanced degree. Grad students are innovators. They advance science. Some start companies. They become teachers for the next generation, and the country needs a more educated workforce. So they ask, how does hitting them with a big tax hike make any sense? Some students have been calling their members of Congress, but this week, they tried to speak out in a bigger way.

JACK NICOLUDIS: Let's make sure our legislators know how this will impact us and the future of higher education in the U.S.

(CHEERING)

ARNOLD: Chemistry Ph.D. student Jack Nicoludis is speaking to about 50 graduate students on the steps of a building on the edge of Harvard Yard as similar rallies were underway at dozens of other schools.

NICOLUDIS: So this is part of a National Day of Action for graduate students around the country. Some came - I think there's more than 50 events happening around the country.

ARNOLD: Many had phone banks set up for students to call lawmakers' offices from all these locations on the same day. One key message - don't slap a huge tax on low-wage-earning grad students to help pay for a trillion-dollar corporate tax cut. Even at Harvard, which sounds privileged and fancy, Nicoludis says he and many of his fellow students are just barely scraping by. To save money, for example, he lives with five roommates, and his bedroom is in an unheated attic.

NICOLUDIS: I wear sweatpants, a sweater. I have a heating blanket and a space heater in my room. And my cats sleep with me too to keep warm.

ARNOLD: The cats may be some comfort, but Nicoludis is very worried that this big tax hike would mean that fewer people would seek advanced degrees. One university administrator we spoke to said this is, quote, "the most serious threat to doctoral education ever." The provision though is only in the House bill, not the Senate tax bill. So a lot of graduate students are hoping it gets thrown out in the final version.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.